Chicago native, ‘Jane the Virgin’ star Gina Rodriguez makes big splash at TV critics’ tour

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Seems like there’s always one actress who manages to charm the hell out of weary, seen-it-all-before TV crtics during summer press tour.

Not too long ago but before my time, it was the “adorkable” Zooey Deschanel.

The TV critics’ tour isn’t over yet, but I’m going to jump the gun and give this year’s title to Chicago native Gina Rodriguez.

The former Andrew Jackson Language Academy and St. Ignatius student stars in the CW’s charming fall dramedy, “Jane the Virgin.” It’s based on a Venezuelan telenovela and premieres Oct. 13 on WGN-Channel 9.

Rodriguez plays Jane Villanueva, a 23-year-old woman living at home with her single mom and her old-school, uber-religious, Spanish-speaking grandma.

Jane’s a hard working college student who aspires to be a teacher and to one day marry her devoted, patient boyfriend. She’s always striving to do the right thing and for her, that means honoring a promise to Grandma to hold onto her virginity until marriage. This makes it all the more surprising when Jane finds out she’s pregnant in the pilot. (She was mistakenly inseminated; hilarity and plot twists ensue.)

A relative unknown in the TV world, Rodriguez was at the Beverly Hilton Friday to talk about her new series. Rather than repeat the usual “I read the script and fell in love with it” stuff, Rodriguez gave articulate, thoughtful insights not only about her character but about her culture and profession, especially in regards to being a Latina actress.

The youngest of three girls, Rodriguez grew up on the North Side of Chicago at Fullerton and Cicero. Both of her parents were born in Puerto Rico, where they now live. Her grandfather was a French Jew.

Rodriguez’s parents were politically active when they resided in Chicago, working for former aldermen Ted Lechowicz and Luis Gutierrez, among others. Her dad was a Teamster for Local 714, negotiating contracts primarily for Hispanic warehouse workers.

“My parents were knee-deep in politics,” she said. “I would always see them fight for the community, for the people that didn’t have a voice. I figured why not do that with my art?”

Rodriguez, who credits St. Ignatius’ Harlequins drama coach “Mrs. Haley” with helping her acting career take off, discussed her decision to turn down on a part on the Lifetime series “Devious Maids.” She said she wanted to hold out for something better, a role that broke from the stereotypical Latina housekeeper.

“When I was presented with ‘Devious Maids’ after I did a film at Sundance [she played a rapper in “Filly Brown”] and I had an ABC holding deal, I found it limiting that that was the one that was available to me,” Rodriguez said. “Being a maid is fantastic. I have many family members that have fed many of their families on doing that job. But there are other stories that need to be told. And I think that the media is a venue and an avenue to educate and teach our next generation. And, sadly, right now the perception they have of Latinos in America are very specific to maid, landscape [worker], pregnant teen. Mind you, I am playing pregnant — but not a teen.”

Rodriguez’s parents didn’t graduate from college, but they made sure she and her two older sisters did. The eldest is an investment banker and has an MBA from Harvard; the other went to UIC Medical School and still lives in Chicago.

Her parents wanted her to be a lawyer. She chose acting instead, graduating from NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts.

“I didn’t become an artist to be a millionaire,” said the actress, who shares an apartment with her best friend in Los Angeles. “I didn’t become an actor to wear Louis Vuitton. I have to give this dress back when we’re done,” she added, referring to her outfit.

“I became an actor to change the way I grew up. The way I grew up, I never saw myself on screen,” said Rodriguez, whose childhood television tastes revolved around “Growing Pains” and “Family Matters.” ” I realized how limiting that was for me. I would look at the screen and think, well, there’s no way I can do it, because I’m not there. And it’s like, as soon as you follow your dreams, you give other people the allowance to follow theirs. And for me, to look on younger girls and to say, ‘Well, Gina’s like me, maybe not necessarily the same skin color, maybe not necessarily the same background, but, like, that’s me. I’m not alone. I can do it too.’ So every role that I’ve chosen has been one that I think is going to push forward the idea of my culture, of women, of beauty, my idea of liberating young girls of feeling that they have to look at a specific beauty type.”

Rodriguez said she waited patiently for a role like Jane to come along.

“I wasn’t going to let my introduction to the world be one of a story that I think has been told many times,” she said. “I wanted it to be a story that was going to liberate young girls and say, ‘Wow, there we are too, and we’re the doctors, and we’re the teachers, and we’re the writers, and we’re the lawyers, and I can do that too. And I don’t have to be a perfect size 0. I can be a perfect size me.’”

She describes Jane as strong and independent.

“She’s striving to make her dreams come true, and she’s working so hard to have a better life than her parent. … The mishap that happens in her life is just a beautiful example of what we face in real life. It’s going to be really exciting to go on this journey with this girl that has a very serious thing happen to her and see the way she chooses maybe not the popular choices in life,” such as virginity.

“I think that that’s a really awesome thing to put out into the world right now where we are bombarded by twerking — and don’t get me wrong, I can twerk,” she said. “We’re bombarded by those images, and I see what they do to my niece and nephew that are 4 years old. I see what they do to my cousins that are 13. And I think, well, if I can use my art and what I love to do every day to change that perception, that’s awesome. That’s the blessing. That’s the money for me.”

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